All of us carry tender things, painful things. There are things that we will be forgiving our whole lives. If we have the courage to claim the space we need, these lifelong journeys become bittersweet and rich. Our love for ourselves enlarges our hearts and there is more love for others. We become more patient and understanding, kinder, less judgmental, more able to navigate the nuances of life, and ultimately more forgiving in all that we do and say. Therein lies our freedom and our peace.
This message was delivered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI in March 2020. You are welcome to use this message provided the author, Rev. Krista Taves, is credited.
“Mussa and Najib” https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/tales/session5/123298.shtml
Back in 2006, a terrible event occurred. It was a mass shooting, which tragically is not unusual in our country, but this one caught the attention of the nation in a different way. Perhaps you remember it. It was the West Nickel Mines Amish School shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. An armed man entered the school, separated the boys from the girls, and shot the girls before turning the gun on himself. The media were on the scene almost the same time as the first responders and coverage of the event hit the national news. But what made this tragedy unique is what happened after the shooting.
Within hours, the grandfather of the widow of the attacker went to the home of two of the girls who had been killed. The grieving father and grieving grandfather sat down at the kitchen table and the father of the girls offered his forgiveness. Members of the Amish community also went to the widow, offered their condolences, and said that they had forgiven her husband. They invited her and her children to the funerals of their children. The invitation was accepted. They came. The next day, members of the Amish community attended the funeral of the attacker.
It didn’t stop there. Leaders of the Amish community were concerned that the school, now a site of violence, had become a sightseeing destination. It was showered with flowers and stuffed animals. The Amish community did not want this. The place their children died would not become an idol of the tragedy. Their spirits weren’t at the school. Their souls were with the God they believed in. They demolished the school.
When asked by the media how they could engage all this so quickly, the answer was simple. “We forgive,” they said, “because we are people of faith. This is what God has instructed us to do, and we ask you to do the same.”
The media fawned over the community. The subject of forgiveness was on everyone’s lips, with great admiration expressed for the courage and the resilience.
When I reflect on my own reaction, I shared some of that admiration. I was inspired by the depth of their faith, even though it is different from mine. I was humbled by their courage. I was moved by their inner clarity.
But I also had some concerns. I wondered, were they forgiving this man because they really felt forgiveness in their hearts or because they believed it was what they had to do? If the forgiveness came from obligation rather than from the heart, was it really forgiveness?
I also wondered, what about the people who weren’t ready to forgive yet? I thought about the tremendous valuing of obedience in the Amish community, and the pressure to conform. What would have happened if one of the parents said, “I can’t do this! I’m not going to the shooters’ funeral. I don’t want his family at my child’s graveside. It’s too soon! Forgiveness will have to come later.” I don’t know if anyone said this. Probably not, but I’m sure that something like this was happening in someone’s heart.
Like many who followed the story as it unfolded, I started to look inside myself. Maybe you did too. I thought about the the tender places where I was still angry, still resentful and not anywhere close to forgiveness, hadn’t even considered forgiveness. Was I weaker because I held on? Was I too proud? Did I lack the courage?
What I want to explore this morning is when and how we get to forgiveness and how we move through our hurt and pain. I’m proposing that forgiveness is rarely a one-time thing, especially for the big hurts. Forgiveness is a process, often a cycle rather than a linear progression. We often forgive in bits and pieces throughout our lives, and sometimes the big forgivenesses happen, but it takes time to settle in. You can’t be pressured into forgiveness. It can be as spiritually dangerous to forgive too soon as to never forgive at all.
I also have real questions about forgiveness that is done as an obligation. These obligated forgivenesses can do real harm and get in the way of arriving at a true place of freedom and peace where you have really, from the depths of your heart, offered forgiveness or received it.
My purpose in saying this is not to disrespect the Amish community and the choices they made. But in Unitarian Universalism, we are given the space to question everything. Questioning is a sacred process and it’s ok to question even the choices of a people who are committed to peace in all things.
So as a way to enter into these questions, I want to offer another story about another tragedy and the different responses that emerged. This one was in 2015. I’m sorry to say it’s another mass shooting. I wish there weren’t any, but there are, and because they always, in some way, involve a collective social response, they reveal a lot about us.
In Charleston, South Carolina, 9 African Americans were shot while attending Bible study. The Amish shooting exposed misogyny, this one exposed racism. As the Amish did, the church leaders and family members immediately expressed their forgiveness. I attended a vigil at a Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis the next day. The entire theme of the service was forgiveness, with the message that holding onto hatred and anger will only hurt you. It does not honor those who lost their lives. The minister told the gathering that withholding forgiveness means you don’t trust in God’s power. Do you really think that your anger will undo injustice? Only love can do that. I was moved by this message. There was a lot of truth in what he said.
But there were other voices in the African American community expressing frustration at the expectation that they would keep forgiving acts of racial violence. Where was it getting them? The Washington Post published an article by Stacy Patton called “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists.”
“Forgiveness,” she wrote, “has become a requirement for those enduring the realities of black death in America. Black families are expected to grieve as a public spectacle, to offer comfort, redemption, and a pathway to a new day….. Historically, black churches have nurtured the politics of forgiveness so that black people can anticipate divine justice and liberation in the next life. … But Christian or non-Christian, black people are not allowed to express unbridled grief or rage, even under the most horrific circumstances….”
Patton argued that required forgiveness prevents justice. “If we really believe that black lives matter, we won’t devalue our reality and cheapen our forgiveness by giving it away so quickly and easily. Black people should learn to embrace our full range of human emotions, vocalize our rage, demand to be heard, and expect accountability.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/06/22/black-america-should-stop-forgiving-white-racists/)
So what do we make of this? From a political perspective, it is important to acknowledge that some people are expected to forgive more than others. Often those with less social power are expected to forgive a lot more. Those with more social power are not. It is the nature of systemic power imbalances that those with less power have more to lose by not forgiving and those with more power have less to lose.
Last week, for instance, when Elizabeth Warren, the last viable female Democratic candidate left standing, dropped out of the presidential race, many women expressed bitterness that once again a super competent brilliant woman lost to the men. Resentment and anger dripped off many a facebook post. But many of us experienced those around us saying, “We don’t have time for this. Let it go! We have an election to win. Keep your eye on the prize.”
The women pushed back.
“Don’t you pressure me! We are living with lifetimes of being passed over for men. We are not going to muzzle our grief or silence our rage. We’ll get where we need to. We know what’s at stake, but we’re doing it on our terms, not yours.”
It is incredibly important when we have been hurt, to be clear in ourselves that the pain we are experiencing is our truth. When we have been hurt, it is a violation of our core selves that cuts deep. To lessen this somehow, to set it aside, to rationalize it away or to minimize it, continues the violation. If we are pressured to forgive when we are still too hurt, it frustrates any chance of real forgiveness and peace, because then you’re suppressing what’s inside. It can prolong the pain and deepen the wound.
Let’s think back to our Wisdom Story. Nagib and Mussah have a fight and Nagib slaps Mussah. Mussah doesn’t retaliate, which is good. Instead, he withdraws and goes and writes in the sand, “Today my best friend slapped me.” What’s going on here? There no sugar coating of what happened. No gaslighting. No minimizing. He offers a clear statement that harm has been done. Then Nagib sees what has been written. They sit together in the desert. The wind slowly blows the sand away and the words disappear. It doesn’t say how long it took, but you can imagine that it didn’t happen in a few minutes. They had to sit there and look at those words, letting them sink in.
My guess is that each was thinking and feeling deeply. Each man was amassing his courage. Mussah was finding courage to stay with the friend who had broken his trust. Nagib was building courage to face up to what he had done. Finally, as the sun was setting, Nagib said he was sorry and Mussah accepted the apology. I doubt that true forgiveness could have happened in the moment after the slap. It took time.
We have to give ourselves the time to really claim what has happened to us and to sift through the layers and evaluate what the pain is about and to understand its true impact.
To give an example, I used to be a faithful attender of Al Anon, which is a 12 step program for friends and family of alcoholics. We would often talk about all the ways that our addicts had hurt us. There was so much pain in the room and a yearning for our addict to understand how they had hurt us and understand that they needed our forgiveness. But the teaching of Al Anon was that part of our pain came from our own enabling tendencies. We were addicted to the addict and especially the addict’s understanding and approval, and often used manipulative behavior to try and get it. Without minimizing the very hurtful behavior of the addict, we were asked to look with open eyes at how were we hurting ourselves and our loved ones with our addiction to control and our need for approval. Looking at our own motivations helped to untangle the web of victimhood that we had created.
Only when you are clear about your own part can you understand why the actions of another have hurt you so badly. Then what you need to forgive them for and what you need forgiveness for become clearer. If you rushed into forgiveness, all that growth can’t happen.
This process takes a lot of courage. All relationships are complex. All relationships are vulnerable. Our intentions are complex and often hidden to us. It takes courage to step down from the pedestals we put ourselves on. It takes courage to look at our own motivations. It takes courage to speak the truth about how we have been affected by our own choices and the choices of others. It takes as much courage to say, “I’m not ready to forgive yet. I need time,” as it does to say, “I forgive you.”
About a year after the West Nickel Mine School Shooting, Pastor John L. Ruth, a Mennonite minister, visited the community to see how everyone was doing. As a minister, he was able to talk to some of the women, which had not happened originally, as in this very traditional community only men had spoken with the press. Pastor Ruth asked these women if they had truly forgiven the shooter. The answers he received offered some of the nuance that I think many of us were yearning for as the story originally unfolded.
The women supported the initial offerings of forgiveness. They believed in reconciliation and peace. And yet, once their children had been buried and the cameras went away, they had to get down to the work of living into the loss. Never questioning that their children were safe and with the God they believed in, they entered into a life of recommitting to forgiveness every day. Some days it came. Some days it did not.
And so it is with us. All of us carry tender things, painful things. There are things that we will be forgiving our whole lives. If we have the courage to claim the space we need, these lifelong journeys become bittersweet and rich. Our love for ourselves enlarges our hearts and there is more love for others. We become more patient and understanding, kinder, less judgmental, more able to navigate the nuances of life, and ultimately more forgiving in all that we do and say. Therein lies our freedom and our peace.